MEMS micromirrors reflecting
the big picture in home theater

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Aug. 13, 2002 — What packs a million microscopic mirrors, each tilting 5,000 times a second, into an area the size of a postage stamp?

More important, what could turn your den into a miniature multiplex for $2,000?

A micromachine that is becoming a formidable factor in the $4 billion digital projector industry: the digital micromirror device at the heart of the Digital Light Processing (DLP) system pioneered by Texas Instruments Inc.

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The Home Theater Research Group in Menlo Park, Calif., reports that 64 percent of all home theater projectors sold in the first quarter of 2002 were powered by TI’s micromirror devices, including four of the five best-sellers. The market research firm attributed the surge in DLP projectors to the rich color, contrast and film-like quality the technology offers.

Sweta Dash, director of projection research at iSuppli/Stanford Resources, expects sales of DLP-based systems to grow faster than projectors with conventional liquid crystal display (LCD) panels made by Sony Corp. and Epson Corp. She estimates that DLP projectors will grow 52 percent annually through 2006 and make up nearly 30 percent of the market.

Another recent report, from Insight Media of Norwalk, Conn., and Japan-based Techno Systems Research, is even more bullish, estimating that home projectors will grow from only 98,000 units in 2001 to 5.9 million in 2005.

Entry level DLP projectors that can cast a sharp, 5-foot or wider video image on a wall screen are available for about $2,000, with prices expected to continue to fall about 20 percent a year.

Marlene Bourne, senior MEMS analyst for In-Stat/MDR, said that only a year ago DLP projectors were significantly more expensive. She also noted that last year rear-projection televisions built around DLP technology cost between $10,000 and $15,000. In 2002, second generation TV models from a growing pool of manufacturers, including Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Zenith, Vestel and Samsung, are hitting the market with price tags of a few thousand dollars.

Compared to conventional rear-projection TVs, DLP models promise a higher quality image and a slimmer profile. They can even double as jumbo computer monitors.

TI, which first introduced DLP in 1996, also makes a DLP Cinema projector for movie theaters that employs three separate chips and can produce up to 35 trillion colors. Sixty-two theaters in the United States have installed the $150,000 machines to showcase films like the digitally produced “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.”

However, with competition from flat screen plasma and LCD televisions, DLP-powered sets remain a commercial question mark.

JVC and Kodak are developing a competing technology called D-ILA, also known as Liquid Crystal on Silicon, that integrates LCD technology directly onto a silicon chip and offers very high video resolution and image contrast.

DLP’s rapid switching micromirrors are generally regarded as offering a smoother and higher-contrast video image than LCD.

Ian McMurray, Texas Instruments’ spokesman for DLP said that LCD and DLP projectors with comparable performance cost about the same today. But because LCD panels are a mature technology, while DLP is a relatively young one with room for manufacturing efficiencies, McMurray expects DLP technology to gain the cost advantage.

McMurray said that today’s projectors for business deliver most of the division’s revenue and profits. Indeed, Bourne reported that the business market for ultraportable projectors is already dominated by DLP, largely because a single DLP chip takes up less room in the machine than three LCD panels, allowing for compact, two-pound machines.

“However,” said McMurray, “we’re seeing rapid take-up of DLP technology in home entertainment applications — in both front and rear projection — and expect the home market to be extremely significant in coming years.”

Image quality is one of the main reasons DLP is helping expand the projector market into the home. Other factors, said Bourne, include the boom in DVD players, game machines, digital cable and satellite services that can send digital video signals through a projector.

“Better image quality from these sources is feeding people’s natural inclination toward bigger and better, and DLP is the technology to beat for the home cinema,” said Brian Carskadon, senior product manager for home entertainment products at projector maker inFocus Corp. in Wilsonville, Ore. In the near term, Carskadon doesn’t think projectors will completely displace regular television sets, but will serve a complementary function. “It’s like the difference between your oven and a barbeque grill,” he said. “The DLP projector will be for special events –having friends over to watch a movie or sporting event, but probably not just to catch the weather on ‘Good Morning America.’”

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